Once upon a time, Eilhu wandered through the forest, as far as he had when he was a child, lost and cramped from hunger.
He kept his bow slung over his shoulder, his sword in its sheath as he walked, searching for signs of The Wild Man’s passing. The trees reached overhead, their branches blocking out the wan traces of sun which hung in the sky. Roots emerged from the soil like bones and he took care to step over each one. Eilhu had known the auspices of nature, cruel in how they refused to spare the weak but beautiful in the abundance it provided to those who held the terrain in esteem. Birds sung to one another, the damp, restless struggle of small wildlife rose to his ears as he searched. He had tied his golden hair back, tucked under a leather hood and wearing boiled leather armour, in a myriad of shades.
It suited him to wear common clothes to hunt in.
His emotions growled and pulled in their restraints. He would wake in the mornings, suffused with a spreading bleakness, like an insect had bitten him in the night, suffusing his limbs with a poisonous gravity. Each breath wore the rime of winter upon it, but despite his lassitude, he moved with purpose. Eilhu wanted absolution to cleanse the taint of guilt which hung between him and Mirabelle. Had they spoken of it, he wondered?
He spoke through his actions, leaving the interpretation to others but hoping the meaning did not escape them. Words were not adequate vessels for the depths of his feeling any more than a tapestry could capture the roar of a wild beast. Eilhu was not a troubadour, but he knew himself and acted in it. He feared his silence would grow impenetrable, creating a barrier between him and Mirabelle but he feared her rejection for his weakness even more.
A crack of a branch to his left echoed towards him, rippling and turning on the still air. He glanced in its direction. The bow slipped into his hands with an arrow notched and ready as he dropped into a crouch. The sound captured his attention and he moved in its direction, his posture and attention transformed by activity. Eilhu, without the help of The Wild Man, bore his instruction well and with each angled step, he moved with poise and focus. His actions were a way to assuage his own feelings and to prove his innocence to Mirabelle.
The Wild Man, like all men, was unknown to Eilhu, let alone himself.
He circled a thick copse of trees, breathing in through his nose to keep himself calm without losing his aim, lowering the bow to improve his position.
The mastiff growled at him, its black lips pulled back over sharp, yellowed teeth as it lowered its haunches. Eilhu stepped back and glanced about him.
He knew the dog; the breed had been a perennial favourite of huntsmen but his connection was more intimate and confusing. He respected animals, but he did not lower the bow.
The mastiff had one eye rheumy over, bisected by a thick, white scar which snaked down it’s muzzle but it appraised him with a trained attention. Ropes of drool swung from its mouth but it remained in position.
Eilhu took a step backwards. The mastiff stayed still and Eilhu’s intuition bubbled with concern.
The first blow took him upside the head. A fist aimed at his temple made his vision blur as he turned to address his attacker. His feet kicked out from underneath him and he hit the ground hard, the breath squeezed from his lungs as he rolled onto his side, hand on his sword and ready to fight.
His opponent had moved around, and before Eilhu could draw his sword, a length of woven rope snapped taut around his throat, dragged up to his feet as the rope bit deep. Eilhu grasped at the rope, kicking backwards as he fought for breath. His opponent grunted and shoved himself away without relinquishing the grip until Eilhu felt the edges of his mind darken and enclose upon him. Each breath was a promise unfulfilled but needed, and as he fought, his will to act ebbed. He gouged his fingers into the backs of the man’s hands but they brushed, useless against the black leather gauntlets he wore.
Eilhu fought until his breath left him and then knew no more. A blurred outline stood over him and slipped the rope from his throat, bound it over his wrists and knotted it with a languid expertise before he picked up Eilhu and dragged him further into the woods. The mastiff got to its feet and followed them both.
Carrey did not dress as a noble when he set out. He wore rough leathers, with a crossbow and a pair of hatchets worn on his hips. The diction of his voice would betray him, but Carrey had practiced a regional accent. Riding out offered him a cogent means to connect with his purpose, but his mission weighed upon him with an unease he could not define. Eilhu was not like other men, but it presented a motive which made Mirabelle’s decision a matter of logic over emotion.
It carried the weight of betrayal, and Carrey moved slow to accommodate its burdens.
The cold iron burned with each contact.
He remained silent, and their threats made him laugh at a volume thought to be madness.
His captors slipped out of the cell, locking and closing the doors behind them.
Within the womb of darkness, he sat there and waited.